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Learning Chinese for a better job

To make herself more competitive in today's tough job market, Jacksonville resident Jenessa Hren is going the distance — all the way to China.

Hren, 21, will take a break from her college courses here and spend the next year at Zhengzhou University in Henan Province, population 94 million.

"I feel that China's just booming so much, it's important to know the language," she said. "It could help me if I go into the medical field, business or education."

Hren received a full scholarship through the Chinese Ministry of Education's Confucius Institute, so all her tuition, room, board and books will be paid for. She applied for the program through St. Mary's School's Confucius Classroom, which also is partially funded by the Chinese government and allows local students to learn the language.

A number of Southern Oregon students, most younger than Hren, also are studying Chinese in the hopes of increasing their future job prospects, said St. Mary's Principal Frank Phillips, who began the Confucius program in the valley.

"Chinese is definitely a huge market language," he said. "People who can navigate successfully between the U.S. and Chinese culture and language are in high demand."

More than 100 students take Chinese classes daily at St. Mary's, and dozens of public school students across the Rogue Valley also are learning the language.

For the first time this year, Mandarin classes will be offered at Ashland Middle School and Crater High School, Phillips said. Ashland High School and Scenic and Hanby middle schools in Central Point will continue to offer the classes.

All Southern Oregon public schools will continue to have access to Chinese lessons via video conferencing through the Southern Oregon Education Service District, and for the first time this year, Medford School District students will be able to take the courses for high school language credit, Phillips said.

"It's at a very low cost to all public schools," he said. "China even provides the textbooks."

The Chinese government also pays teachers to come to the U.S. to teach classes as part of the Confucius program.

Hren participated in the first year of St. Mary's Chinese program as a high school junior. She traveled to China twice with the program, greatly improving her conversational skills, she said.

Hren, who is Chinese but was adopted from Taiwan as a newborn, grew up hearing her mom speak the language. But it wasn't until she enrolled in the St. Mary's courses that she learned to read and write Mandarin, she said.

She graduated from St. Mary's in 2008 and completed her general education credits at the University of Oregon, Rogue Community College and elsewhere. But before she selects a major and graduates, she wants to master Mandarin.

"In the end, I think having Chinese language fluency will be a good foundation for my future and my future career, no matter what it is," she said.

She'll board a plane headed for China tonight and will begin classes Monday. In addition to language classes, Hren's enrolled in history, literature and economics courses — all of which will be taught in Chinese.

"I think it's going to be a culture shock," she said. "I've never been this far away from home for this long, but I think it will be a great experience to study all the way across the world."

Reach reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-776-4459 or email hguzik@mailtribune.com.

Jenessa Hren packs one of two suitcases in her Jacksonville home. Hren will be studying abroad in China for a year. - Julia Moore